Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Frank Norris: An Overview

The King of American Naturalism
Frank Norris. Photo by Arnold Genthe
Today, March 5th, is the birthday of Frank Norris (1870-1902), one of the greatest American novelists at the turn of the last century. His brilliant career was sadly cut short by a fatal case of appendicitis at the age of 32, but in his all-too-brief tenure as a man of letters, Norris was able to produce seven quality novels and a numerous and wide assortment of short stories, essays, and journalistic nonfiction.

Norris was born in Chicago, studied art in Paris, and attended Harvard University, but he lived most of his adult life in San Francisco, and almost all of his fiction is set in California. In his formative years as a writer, he worked as a war correspondent in South Africa and Cuba, published short stories in periodicals like The Overland Monthly and Everybody’s Magazine, and served as editor and staff writer for The San Francisco WaveHis earliest works exhibit the influence of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bret Harte, and William Dean Howells, but by the time he got around to writing novels he had already developed a mature style based largely on the literary Naturalism of French writer Emile Zola. 

Naturalism was a literary movement that sprang out of the scientific developments of the 19th century, most notably Darwin’s theory of evolution. While Romantic literature often depicted a hero as master of his own destiny, the protagonist of the Naturalist novel is often the victim and product of exterior natural forces. His character and behavior are molded by heredity, environment, and social conditions. Naturalist writers use detailed descriptive prose to create a vividly realistic setting, then populate this world with characters that are ostensibly guinea pigs in an experiment, acting out the scientific and philosophical concepts the author wishes to explore. Naturalism, as exemplified by the works of Zola and Norris, occupies a sort of middle ground between Romanticism and Realism. While a Naturalist novel often depicts people and places that are remarkably true-to-life, the plot often features extraordinary events happening to ordinary people. Naturalist writers were frequently chastised by critics for being too brutally realistic and focusing on the grittier, uglier, baser sides of humanity’s existence. Thus when critics bestowed upon Norris the nickname of “the American Zola,” it was probably meant to be just as much an insult as a compliment.

So far no one has put together an e-book file of Norris’s complete works. All of his novels are in the public domain and can be downloaded for free from Amazon and Project Gutenberg. The short stories, essays, and such are harder to find, but most are available either at Google Books or Open Library. Another good source is the Frank Norris page at the web site of The William Dean Howells Society. I’ve read and reviewed everything available ever written by Norris—enough to say that I’ve tackled his “complete works,” though in truth there’s probably a handful of uncollected short stories out there that I’ve missed. Below is a list of books by or about Norris that have been featured at Old Books by Dead Guys. Click on the title of any book to read its complete review.


Vandover and the Brute (written 1894, published 1914)
Written while Norris was in college, this novel chronicles a young man’s gradual descent into a life of vice. Intended as a gritty portrayal of the effects of alcohol, sex, and gambling, today’s audience may find it a bit tame. Nevertheless, it’s an auspicious debut effort. (3.5 stars)

Moran of the Lady Letty (1898)
A wealthy young gentleman of San Francisco is shanghaied into service aboard a shark-fishing vessel and meets up with a lady pirate. Although the subject matter has the absurdity of pulp fiction, Norris treats the tale with vivid realism. (4 stars)

McTeague (1899)
Many critics consider this to be Norris’s greatest work (though for me, that would be The Octopus). The title character is a simple-minded dentist with a practice in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in San Francisco. This novel is a startling examination of the poisonous effects of greed on the human psyche. (4.5 stars)

Blix (1899)
A light-hearted romance about two young people falling in love in San Francisco. Despite the fluffy subject matter, Norris approaches the story from his trademark Naturalist perspective. It’s not profound or earth-shattering, but good for what it is. (4 stars)

A Man’s Woman (1900)
This is Norris’s worst novel, but still not terrible. It details the troubled romance between two strong-willed and career-driven individuals: a polar explorer and a nurse. The first two chapters are absolutely excellent, and well worth reading on their own. (2.5 stars)

The Octopus (1901)
Wheat farmers in California are driven to desperate measures when a railroad attempts to steal their land. This is Norris’s greatest work—a masterpiece of American literature that should be read by all. (5 stars)

The Pit (1903)
A sequel of sorts to The Octopus, Norris’s final novel focuses on the world of wheat trading in the Chicago Board of Trade. When one trader tries to corner the market in wheat, the lives of an ensemble cast of characters are altered irrevocably. (4 stars)


Yvernelle (1892)
Norris’s first published book was not a novel, but this tale of medieval chivalry, heavily influenced by Sir Walter Scott, which is written entirely in verse. It’s like nothing else he ever wrote. (2 stars)

Short Stories, Essays, and Journalism (most collections published posthumously)

Writings for The Overland Monthly (1892-1894)
Not a book, but a category. The eight stories Norris published in this San Francisco literary magazine are all available online for free. This includes “Lauth,” perhaps his best short story ever, and the “Outward and Visible Signs” series. (4 stars)

A Deal in Wheat and Other Stories of the New and Old West (1903)
This is probably Norris’s best-known collection of short stories, but it’s basically just an assortment of mediocre adventure tales, similar to those of Jack London but not as good. “Two Hearts that Beat as One” and “The Passing of Cock-Eye Blacklock” are pretty good. (3 stars)

The Responsibilities of the Novelist (1903)
25 essays in which Norris expresses his views on literature and the art of writing. Within these essays he defines his conception of Naturalism. (4 stars)

The Third Circle (1909)
A great collection of short stories from his early days, covering a wide variety of settings and subject matter. Among the best are “A Reversion to Type,” “A Caged Lion,” “The Guest of Honour,” and the title piece. (4.5 stars)

The Surrender of Santiago (1917)
This odd little publication contains just one article Norris wrote about the Spanish-American War. It was republished as a booklet during World War I to inspire patriotic feeling. (3 stars)

The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, 1896-1898, Volume 1 (1996)
A wide variety of short fiction and nonfiction from his days as a staff writer for the weekly periodical the San Francisco Wave. Mostly nonfiction, including a lot of football reporting. Among the fiction included here, the “Man Proposes” series is the best. (4 stars)

The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, 1896-1898, Volume 2 (1996)
More from Norris’s days at the San Francisco Wave. There’s more fiction in the second volume. Among the best pieces here are “Miracle Joyeux,” “Perverted Tales,” “Fantaisie Printanière,” and “The Drowned Who Do Not Die.” (4 stars)


Norris: Novels and Essays (Library of America) (1986)
Includes Vandover and the Brute, McTeague, The Octopus, and 22 well-selected essays. (5 stars)


Frank Norris: A Life by Joseph R. McElrath and Jesse S. Crisler (2006)
An in-depth biography of Norris and a critical examination of his works. This book will tell you everything you wanted to know about Norris and more. It does give away the endings of his books, so only diehard fans should read it. (4 stars)

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